When I started Unpopular Front one year ago one of the first posts was about my cousin Gottfried Ballin, a member of a socialist resistance group in Nazi Germany who was imprisoned in 1934, convicted of conspiracy to commit high treason, deported, and ultimately murdered in Auschwitz in 1942 or 1943 (records differ.) I didn’t know anything about Gottfried until a few years ago when a friend and former professor discovered his name in a database and told me about him. In the process of learning more about him, I discovered there was a book of letters from his time in prison, sent mostly to his mother Anna Ballin (nee Ganz) and his fiancée Helene Sälzer. Anna, unwilling to abandon her son, was deported to either the Lodz or Theresienstadt ghetto and apparently died from illness either in 1941 or 1942. I can’t determine exactly if Helene and Gottfried were ever able to officially marry, since he was Jewish and she was an “Aryan” and such unions were forbidden by law after 1935, but some sources refer to them as married and name her as “Helene Ballin.”
Over a year ago, Brigitte and Fritz Bilz, two independent researchers who compiled the book of Gottfried’s letters sent me a copy. Since I only have a smattering of German from college, I haven’t been able to really dig into the contents. I also have been a little apprehensive as the content is no doubt upsetting. But I’ve decided to try to translate one letter a week using a combination of Google Translate and figuring out things through context.
Here’s the story of Gottfried’s life in so far as I’ve pieced it together from Wikipedia and the introduction to the book of Gottfried’s letters.—
Gottfried was born in 1914 to Anna Ballin and Martin Ballin on April 9 1914. Anna, a painting student, was the daughter of Alexander Ganz (my great great grandfather,) the proprietor of the Lengfeld’sche Buchhandlung, the oldest and “most renowned” bookstore in Köln and Martin was a doctor from a Lithuanian Jewish background. Martin Ballin served with distinction in the First World War, was decorated for bravery, but returned “mentally and physically broken” and committed suicide in 1919. Gottfried and his brothers, Wolfgang and Arnold, lived with their mother. It appears Nazi-era restrictions prevented Gottfried, who had a deep interest in literate, from pursuing higher education after graduating high school, so he went to work as an apprentice at the family bookstore. Unlike the rest of the family, who were apparently content with their cultured upper-middle-class life in Köln, Gottfried was interested in politics and became a socialist. This seems to have been the source of some tension: “Gottfried was the only family member who was politically active and he accused his family of a bourgeois lifestyle and carelessness.” He was a member of the SPD, the Social Democratic Party, until 1931, when he joined the more activist and radical splinter SAPD, the Socialist Workers Party, which wanted to take a more militant stance against the Harzburg Front, the alliance of the Nazis with the other nationalist right-wing parties.
While working for the SAPD, Gottfried met Helene Sälzer, the daughter of a union metal worker who raised his children to be die-hard social democrats. Although the Nazis hadn’t fully seized power, socialist groups were under constant harassment by the SS and SA and activism was dangerous. After a late night, clandestine meeting of a group of young SAPD cadre, Helene, who told her parents she was staying with friends, found herself with nowhere to go. “Then someone said to her: »Give me your hand, you'll go with me. << It was Gottfried Ballin who put up Helene at his house were he lived with his mother Anna and his brothers Wolfgang and Arnold. He gave her his room. In the morning Helene looked around the room and was fascinated by the many books.”
After the Nazi seizure of power, the SAPD attempted an underground campaign against the regime. Gottfried and Helene were both recruited by Erich Sander, the son of the famous photographer August Sander, to join a secret cell. Gottfried was put in charge of selling the party newspaper and collecting contributions. In 1933, the Ballins’ home was vandalized by Nazis, who painted the facade with antisemitic slogans. The house was also raided by the SS, searching for political writing. “They ripped everything out, drawers, cupboards, even prying open the floorboards. Finally they found a small box with Martin's war medals. So they saluted and left.” Anna soon thereafter was forced to give up the house due to “Aryanization,” selling it for a fraction of the value and moving to a small apartment. In the summer 1934, the cell was compromised and all members except for the two women, Helene and Clare, were arrested. It’s still not known who betrayed the group. Gottfried, ill at the time with what was suspected to be paratyphoid fever, was arrested in his hospital bed. Below is a translation of the first letter dating shortly after his arrest.
Ballin , Gottfried Briefbuch Nr . 3797 Cologne, September 17, 1934
(Stamp: Cologne, September 19, 1934 District Court, section 25)
I have been in custody at Klingelpütz prison since Friday morning. Perhaps you could be so good as to do something for me, since as a prisoner on remand I'm allowed to have a few privileges. I’m allowed to wear my own underwear and therefore ask you to send me shirts , underpants , socks , but above all please send a toothbrush and toothpaste as soon as possible. Self-catering is also permitted. To get it you have to pay a fee, after which I would receive special food from an inn. How much you would have to pay will be able to be told at the cashier's office. I would also be grateful if you could make sure that I get some fruit every day, because my digestion is still not quite right. You could also maybe send me my green suit as the brown one is very worn. I can also buy other small items through the institution if there is enough money in my account at the institution's fund. Would you mind taking care of that? Permission to send me books , subscribe to magazines and newspapers , and have your own stationery and writing materials would need to be obtained from the warden . The first thing I would like to do is read Lessing's works and, if I may, subscribe to the Stadt-Anzeiger [A Cologne daily newspaper.] You can find money for the newspaper in the top right drawer of my desk, there are still 10 RM from my last salary. I cause you so much grief and then I have to appeal to your generosity again so that you can help me a little. The worries I have to cause you are unintentional and through no fault of my own. I hope that the matter will be resolved soon. The investigator told me, however, that I would not be allowed to see you for the first 14 days, and so I must prepare myself for a longer period of detention. I have 2 more requests: a small pair of scissors to be able to cut and clean my nails and a new belt because mine is breaking in two. I'm so terribly sorry that I'm causing you an expense on top of all your worries, but look, if I had gone to recover from my illness now, that would have cost something too. So do not be angry and forgive me. One last request : see if you can arrange for me to have some physical activity in the afternoon, I would like to do something for myself in the morning . Please write a lot and don't be angry if I don't write often, because for the time being I'm not allowed to and later, if I should be allowed to, I don't experience as much in here as you do out there in freedom,
Many warm regards,
If you want to do something very nice to me, then send me my pillow with a cover. 1 pair of slippers. Thanks a lot!